22 Jun 2009, 9:49pm
Forestry education
by admin

Environmental Apocalypticism

Professor Aynsley Kellow is Head, School of Government, University of Tasmania in Hobart. He is the author of Science and Public Policy: The virtuous corruption of virtual environmental science, 2007, Edward Elgar Publishing [here].

I have not read his book yet, and so cannot review it at this time. But he posted an excerpt at Watts Up With That [here] that rings true like a silver concert bell.

The discussion at WUWT revolved around the suicidal tendencies of certain social movements, notably the Xhosa people of Southeast Africa [here, here]. The chat then drifted into millenarianism [here], a type of a religious, social, or political movement whose followers are sometimes prone to committing mass suicide.

Dr. Kellow chimed in with a passage from his book that describes the postmodern cognitive dissonance of the Environmental Movement, a cult of sorts that exhibits millenarianism tendencies. I had just posted The Trap of Uncontrolled Equivocation [here], a post that discussed the clash of ontologies: colliding world views, and so I was particularly attuned to PoMo deconstructions of runaway apocalyptic environmentalism and, perversely, environmental “science”.

And so with permission I present Dr. Kellow’s contribution to that discussion, for your enjoyment and edification (note to F. Grump — get your dictionary out):


A Comment by Aynsley Kellow at Watts Up With That

Prof Deming is, of course, describing a millenarian movement, a phenomenon that includes the example another poster gives: cargo cults.

The definitive book on the millenarian aspects of environmentalism is perhaps: Gelber, Steven M. and Martin L. Cook (1990) Saving the Earth: The History of a Middle-Class Millenarian Movement. University of California Press, 1990.

Cognitive dissonance is not confined to millenarian movements, but it does explain the defence mechanisms used by the adherents to dismiss inconvenient observations. We are all prone to such defence mechanisms. As Carl Sagan put it: “Where we have strong emotions, we’re liable to fool ourselves.” This is why celebration of dissenting view is inherent to science and the cognitive dissonance device of “denier” is anathema to science.

I discuss this in my 2007 book Science and Public Policy: The virtuous corruption of virtual environmental science. The relevant passage is as follows:

Modern environmentalists would nevertheless do well to ponder where a rejection of humanist values and a belief in a transcendental ecocentric value system might lead them, just as there is value in studying the resonance between the Nazi war on cancer and their wars on communism and Judaism, which were included in their cancer metaphor. In this regard, Ehrlich’s invocation (1968: 152) of the metaphor of cancer to describe human population growth in The Population Bomb is somewhat disconcerting. But it is simplistic in the extreme to suggest that environmentalism leads to the gates of Auschwitz. It is equally mistaken however, to assume that that environmentalism somehow precludes such a path and leads instead to some progressive future. There are indeed some worrying connections between ecologism and various extreme political views, not least of which are the celebrated racist views of Haeckel, the father of ecological science. It is more plausible to suggest that there are many complex factors at work. Indeed, Nazism and ecofacism or other darker contemporary manifestations of ecological thought are better seen as reflective of similar underlying factors in history and culture.

Both might also be seen as millenarian movements, for example. This is quite clear with Nazism and its “Thousand Year Reich”, but there is a similar appeal to a stable utopian end point after apocalyptic collapse in much environmentalism (Gelber and Cook, 1990). The neo-Malthusian spectre of the Club of Rome was one of rapid, catastrophic growth in population and economy, demanding “zero population growth” and “zero economic growth” or (in its more sophisticated forms) a “stable state society.” The origins of the word “sustainability” — “that magic word of consensus” as Worster (1993: 144) puts it — lie in the concept of “sustained yield” which emerged first in scientific forestry in Germany in the late eighteenth century. As Robert Lee (cited by Worster, 1993: 145) has noted, it came not just as a response to the decline in German forests, but as a response to the uncertainty and social instability which wracked Germany at that time (and which were responsible at least in part for the decline in German forests). It was an instrument of a strong state for ordering social and economic conditions which stood as a “necessary” counterweight to emergent laissez-faire capitalism.

There is a long tradition of Western thought involving decline, often catastrophic decline, from some idyllic past — usually as a result of some sin or degeneration. Hanson (2006) lists Hesiod (the 8th-century BC Greek poet), Sophocles, Virgil, Ovid, the Biblical Fall, and numerous others through Rousseau, Nietzsche and Spengler to Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and Jared Diamond. Diamond, author of two hugely popular books in Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, manages in one to attribute the success of the West, not to freedom, rationalism, individualism, and consensual government, but to inanimate, natural forces at work; and in the other, the forthcoming collapse is predicted on the basis of a few atypical examples (Easter Island, Greenland, Pitcairn Island, and so on) because the failed societies degraded their environments through ignorance and greed and thus deservedly disappeared.

What is telling is that environmental activists, most social scientists writing about environmental issues, and many “activist” environmental scientists still cling to the myth of the “balance of nature” that has long been rejected by ecology (Scoones, 1999). By accepting this myth in the face of the scientific evidence, any change in ecosystems or climate can be attributed to human agency, and imparted with deep social meaning — either apocalyptic or (if promising some eventual return to stable state of grace) millenarian. Regardless, Hanson suggests that such pessimism fulfills a need in affluent but guilty Westerners to feel bad about their privileges without having to give them up.

There have been numerous analyses of environmentalism in millenarian terms. For example, Buell, (1995) has analysed “environmental apocalypticism”, while Killingsworth and Palmer (1996) and Lee (1997) have described the millenarian aspects of the contemporary environment movement. Stewart and Harding (1999: 289-90) saw environmental concerns as but one of a number of fin de siecle concerns:

During the 1990s, apocalypticism, and, somewhat less flamboyantly, its millennialist twin, have become a constant and unavoidable presence in everyday life. Idioms of risk, trauma, threat, catastrophe, conspiracy, victimization, surveillance; social, moral, and environmental degradation; recovert, redemption, the New Age, and the New World Order permeate the airways.

Stewart and Harding also point to attributes of apocalypticism that describe the constant ascribing of sinister motives to those who present dissenting views: climate sceptics are in the pay of fossil fuel corporations, Lomborg’s analysis will assist these interests, and so on. Such conspiracy theories at once serve to defend the prevailing paradigm, reinforce solidarity among the adherents and reinforce their sense of purpose:

Conspiracy theories can identify absolute truths about the world while dismissing holders of power as sinister, corrupt, and deceptive; they can also resurrect agency and the sense of a privileged community “in the know,” and an otherwise bleak present can become charged with purpose and focus (Stewart and Harding, 1999: 294).

Scientists such as Lord May who commit the genetic fallacy, attributing the dissident views of climate sceptics to the “sinister, corrupt and deceptive” antics of ExxonMobil, and who make statements that are logically identical to accusations of witchcraft, probably do not think that they have much in common with pre-Enlightenment societies. But the mixture of climate change and witchcraft is not a new one (Behringer, 1995), and there is no reason to suppose that scientists are above the defensive psychology Festinger (1962) termed “cognitive dissonance” — coincidentally developed in an earlier study of the state of denial found in millenarian movements when their prophesies failed to materialise (Festinger, et al, 1964). But May (and others) have agendas, are “concerned” scientists, and no matter how much they consider they operate cognitively, this brings an “affective” dimension to their thinking, and they cannot rise above the same psychology all humanity exhibits. It is only scepticism and criticism that limits the extent to which affective factors intrude into science, and it is the nobility of the cause and thus the availability of strong moral arguments to disarm critics which facilitates it.

Nazism and environmentalism are by no means the only movements in the Western mainstream which can be analysed in millenarian terms. Both Nazism and environmentalism may well both contain elements of the romanticism Jeffrey Herf (1984) called “reactionary modernism” but this is not to say that either necessarily entails or leads to the other. Two other movements which can be subjected to a millenarian analysis are Marxism (which promises an unchanging communist utopia after a period of revolutionary upheaval) and Christianity, especially in those manifestations which emphasise the heavily millenarian Book of Revelation. It is facile to suggest that either entails or leads to the other, and it is similarly facile to suppose that environmentalism entails or leads to Nazism — though (as noted above) it is wise to exercise caution about some of its darker possibilities. But this analysis shows how wrong it is to assume that environmentalism somehow entails a liberal democratic political philosophy, or the social democratic ideology that is described as “liberal” in the United States. Classical liberalism, with its emphasis on the separation between the individual and the state, nevertheless provides a protection against the darker possibilities of environmentalism.

Culture and language might reflect and reinforce deep-seated cultural differences in responses to environmental threats: German environmental language frequently not only increases the threat image (”Klimakatastrophe”) but also promises more control and salvation via state action (”Klimaschutz”) (Boehmer-Christiansen, 1988). Steven Kelman has identified some aspects of Swedish political culture which he considered helped explain its position at the vanguard. Sweden has a somewhat circumspect political culture, institutions described as accommodationist, and a tradition of the “overhet” state: “The people were expected to accept the notion of the good that the rulers defined.” To illustrate the point, Kelman quotes the words of an eighteenth-century Swedish poet inscribed over the entrance to the main hall of Uppsala University: “To think freely is great, to think correctly is greater” (Kelmann, 1981: 121).

Culture, of course is a holistic concept, and political cultures cannot be readily disaggregated into neat constituent parts. Language, religion and attitudes are simply three facets of political culture. What is of interest here is the possibility that such cultural factors could exert an influence on the conduct of science. There is a range of possibilities in environmental concern, some “progressive”, some much darker. Environmental science does not lead ineluctably to “progressive” political outcomes, and there are dangers in assuming that it does.

Science can be affected by values and interests, and the seeming impossibility of achieving “objective” knowledge of any phenomena — natural or social — is sometimes taken to enfranchise a kind of “anything goes” approach to knowledge often found in postmodernist texts, and endorsed by Feyerabend, sometimes referred to as “postnormal” science (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993). All attempts to develop knowledge are, according to this view, “just texts”. Any text becomes as “valid” as another. But it does not follow logically that contamination of science by values and interests means we should assign it all some kind of equivalence. To draw attention to the pernicious effect of the extreme relativism of postmodernism on the use of science in the progressive cause Alan Sokal (1996) submitted and had published as a genuine paper a satire on postmodernist philosophy of science that mocked the idea of reality being inherently something of which we are unable to derive objective knowledge (as opposed to our understanding of it being always at risk of error and social construction). Sokal saw himself as a member of the progressive Left and lamented what had become of the place of science as a progressive force under the postmodernist enthusiasm that was sweeping the humanities. (He invited those who thought that science was a mere construction to test the Law of Gravity from the window of his high-rise office at Columbia University).

We do have canons which help us tell good science from bad. Insistence on consistency of argument and adherence to the scientific method has brought numerous advances, not just in knowledge, but also in human welfare, with improvements in life expectancy, for example, that are more than “just text.” And (though the pitfalls might be larger) the same holds for the social sciences: for all its limitations, economics plays its part in improving welfare; political science helps improve the making of public policy decisions. Indeed, the great advances in life expectancy for ordinary people during modernity came about through the design and financing of great public works projects such as the sewering of Victorian London (ironically, based on the erroneous miasma theory of disease) rather than on advances in treatments based on medical science. Contemporary environmentalism too often entails a rejection of modernity, rationalism and the Enlightenment. These attributes are not just found in environmentalism as an ideology, but they are deeply ingrained within ecological science itself.



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